How Do Marriage Partners Make Effective Decisions?

Couple sitting on dock fishingMarriage partners are in a sense yoked together. Couples need therefore skills for making decisions cooperatively. If they can choose together when to turn left and when to turn right neither of them will feel powered-over, dominated, controlled, or even compromised. Instead, each shared decision just enhances their loving partnership.

To make shared decisions, couples notice when one of them once one thing and the other another. As soon as they see this kind of difference, they switch from launching a tug of war over their preferred solutions to exploring the concerns that underlie each of their preferences. As they come to understand their partner’s and their own underlying concerns, then they can look for a solution: a plan of action responsive to all parties involved.

Consider the following example: Mary wanted to move to Montana; Bob likes living in Arkansas. After some argument, they switched from struggling over who would get their way to exploring their underlying concerns. Mary loves the wide open spaces of Montana. Bob’s concern was whether he would be able to find work outside of the state he had always lived in.

Their solution was to agree that Bob would explore job openings in Montana. If a job there looked possible, then he would be glad to move. A month of following job postings and there it was, a perfect job for Bob, and a move to a preferred region  for Mary.

© Copyright 2010 by Susan Heitler, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment

    August 4th, 2010 at 7:06 PM

    Although every problem of a couple may not have a solution as easy as the one mentioned here, I am sure there is at least a probable solution that will stop the arguments and all the hurt. I have been married twenty years now and I know how it is when there is an argument, when there is something your partner doesn’t agree to your views on. And the best thing to do in such a situation is to tell yourself to keep the voice low and talk about it rather than shout at your partner to get your point across.

  • Harvey

    August 4th, 2010 at 9:36 PM

    “To make shared decisions, couples notice when one of them once one thing and the other another.”

    I assume you meant “when one of them wants one thing…”

  • Tom

    August 4th, 2010 at 10:25 PM

    My wife and I are like two peas in a pod. We’re both stubborn as mules if we think we’ve got the best solution. That creates us problems. When we can’t discuss it to a point of resolution, we end up fighting over it until the subject is dropped and added to the “hot potato” taboo list. We’re running out of things to talk about! Don’t ask me why it’s so hard to give in. It just is.

  • Mark.w

    August 5th, 2010 at 3:57 AM

    Although I’m unmarried,I’d like to believe that not everyday starts and does with an argument for a married couple because there is just so many things to talk and decide about in life…So many things that you never encounter when you’re dating the same person…I hope my future partner is not a stubborn person because being stubborn only brings out competition between the partners and not love and affection.

  • amy h

    August 5th, 2010 at 4:29 AM

    I think that this is indicative of all of the key roles in a marriage. The more time that the two of you spend together and working together on resolving whatever issues may arise then the stronger your relationship is sure to be. I know couples who spend absolutely no time together, and maybe one is in charge of the kids and the other is in charge of the money and then at night they have nothing to talk about with one another. For me marriage is a journey that was meant to be taken and walked together and if that is not what my partner had in mind then I am not too sure that that is someone that I could keep in my life and live with.

  • Alice

    August 5th, 2010 at 9:49 AM

    marriage is not about scoring points. its not about making yourself heard all the time and running over your partner.
    but that does not mean you need to become a door-mat yourself and let your partner run you over. there needs to be mutual respect and equality in the relationship. only then can you expect good communication and therefore prevention of arguments and fights in the relationship.

  • Yvonne

    August 5th, 2010 at 11:09 AM

    If you can get your partner to voice their true fears, you’re three quarters of the way there. My husband always gives me one flimsy reason as to why he doesn’t want to do something and I know there’s another bigger deeper one he’s not telling me. He should just give me the proper reason the first time instead of making me jump through hoops to discover it. It gets very tiring. Thankfully we don’t often take opposite sides over anything.

  • Jack

    August 5th, 2010 at 4:15 PM

    My wife and I have been married thirty four years and I say it’s because we never go to bed mad. We really don’t. We sit up and talk all night if we have to and nothing is left unsaid. If you can’t talk to your wife, who can you talk to? I’m not always right and she’s not always right. We keep going until we work it out.

  • Diane

    August 6th, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    Heck, your wife is lucky Jack! My husband is the boss. We don’t have a partnership. He’s very old school in that respect. When we disagree, he’ll say this is the way it’s going to be because I’m head of the household. I used to fight my corner. Now I just say okay. I am filled with self-loathing. But that’s okay. It keeps the peace.

  • Lizzie

    August 6th, 2010 at 7:12 PM

    Whaaaat??? It is not okay! I could not live like that, Diane. Where’s your sense of self-worth? You do that to keep the peace over and over again. What kind of life is that where you’re denied self-expression?

    You need to think seriously about getting out of that marriage. You can’t tell me that you’re happy in that relationship and if you’re not happy, what’s the point in being together? It’s never too late to make a move. There are no bosses in a good marriage, just partners.

    Please, either get couples therapy, go alone to therapy for your own sake, or leave. Don’t remain in such an unbalanced relationship. It’s not healthy.

  • Paulette

    August 6th, 2010 at 9:49 PM

    the title of the entry says it all because marriages are effective when they do sit down and ake important decisions together- if only one partner gets to make all of the decisions then that relationship is very lopsided and not everyone is getting a fair say

  • Dr. Heitler

    August 11th, 2010 at 6:22 PM

    Wow! So many important comments! I’ll respond in the order that they were written.

    Andy started us off by hitting the nail on the head. Keeping voices low so emotional intensities stay calm increases both partners abilities to hear each others’ concerns. It’s paradoxical but the louder people talk, the less they will communicate. And reaching win-win solutions depends on both partners’ abilities to hear and take seriously their spouse’s concerns.

    Thank you Harvey for fixing my typo. “Once” should have been “wants.”

    Tom highlights that it’s hard to “give in.” I agree. I hate giving in too. When people are being stubborn it’s because they confuse “taking in” information with “giving in” dto their partner’s solution ideas. They key is to take in information about each other’s CONCERNS. When people “give in” it’s usually to the other’s SOLUTIONs. By taking in information about each other’s concerns, you can then create win-win solutions, that is, plans of action responsive to both of your UNDERLYING CONCERNS.

    I agree with Mark that fighting stubbornly about which of you is right is a recipe for a competitive marriage, and that competitive fighting breeds contention and sullies affection. Instead, assume that both of you are right, or at least that both of you have legitimate concerns. Find solutions responsive to both of your concerns and each difference will turn into an opportunity to enhance your love.

    Amy and Alice highlight the notion that marriage is a journey taken together with lots of sharing. Sounds good to me!

    As Yvonne point out, people often express multiple concerns on why they want or do not want to do something. Be careful though of looking to decide which is the true reason. Better to assume that all the reasons are valid. At the same time, as people explore their underlying concerns it’s normal to peel the onion gradually. What turns out to be the most important concern may emerge only after first articulating other concerns that while true are less potent. That’s the way the mind often works. Best to accept that reality as normal instead of criticizing your husband for gradually accessing what’s important to him. And bravo to both of you for continuing to talk over important issues until you gradually access the full range of concerns.

    Similar bravos to Jack.

    Diane, depression, which is the clinical term for self-loathing, is the by-product of giving up when what you want with regard to important issues does not become part of the solution. You have a tough dilemma. I agree with Lizzie that instead of just tolerating that situation it could be helpful to get help. One place to start might be to go to my Power of Two website. We have a series of games there that teach collaborative problem-solving in a non-threatening fun way. You can find some of the games on YouTube if you search po2games. Or go to

    And thank you Paulette for coining the term “lopsided marriage.” When power is shared equally because both people’s views count, love flourishes.

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